During a telephone interview this week, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, attempted to squeeze into a single sentence why she cares so much about Texas education. She came up with this: “An education is the only way a poor kid stops being a poor kid.”
Davis has staked her political reputation on the issue of education. Two Sundays ago, she attracted the spotlight when she filibustered a school finance bill by standing on the Senate floor for more than an hour until the clock struck midnight and the bill died with the end of the session (if only to resurrect itself during a special legislative session now underway, which Gov. Rick Perry called for after Davis’ filibuster). For her filibuster, Davis passed the time by reading letters from constituents — school principals, teachers and parents. Their missives pleaded with Davis, asking her to stick up for their schools and advocate for use of the Rainy Day Fund, a pot of money from oil and gas taxes, to spare education budgets from the axe. Davis has also proposed taking money earmarked for the governor’s pet projects for corporations as another way of saving school districts from the cutbacks that a historic state budget shortfall appear to make imminent.
In the final analysis, Davis’ filibuster may not prevent what she views as permanent damage to the way the state finances Texas public schools. But by reading those letters late into the night, Davis wrenched not only state and national attention in her direction but also drew the wrath of Perry, who wound up sounding peevish days after he had tentatively put a baby toe in the water as a presidential contender. In response to Davis’ soliloquy on the Senate floor, Perry remarked, “[Davis] raised a hurdle. That’s her call, and I’m sure members of the Legislature that will be back here in special session will have appropriate things to say to her for that.”
Davis’s commitment to Texas education relates to the story of her own life, an impressive and inspiring tale.
One of four siblings, she was raised by a single mom in Fort Worth who worked for an hourly wage at a Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Store. Davis attended a large high school but seemed destined for a bleak future. As she tells the story in a video posted online for Generation Texas, a campaign by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to mobilize communities to send more students to college, the one guidance counselor at her high school had little time or resources to give her guidance. She was “one of those kids who just fell through the cracks,” Davis said. By the time she was 19, she was divorced and herself a single mom.
“I was living in a mobile home in Southeast Fort Worth, and I was destined to live the life I watched my mother live,” she said.
Instead, Davis enrolled in a paralegal training program at Tarrant County College, where, as she put it, “I learned I wanted to be the lawyer, not the lawyer’s assistant.”
While waiting tables, Davis continued at Tarrant County College and applied and received a full scholarship to Texas Christian University. After graduating, she was accepted to Harvard Law School.
From this background, she drew the fire to fight for education. She has a track record of advocating for useful legislation and authored a bill that requires incoming students to get vaccinated against bacterial meningitis.
She said she filibustered the school finance bill because “it was advancing a school funding formula which will permanently remove $4 billion from schools’ commitment to education — a formula that will forever be in place.”
Increased property taxes will be called on to fill the gap, she argues; an unrealistic and unworkable outcome for many districts of the state, including her own. Her proposed alternative: Take money from the the Emerging Technology Fund, which Perry has control over and has doled out to companies linked to his campaign contributors.
In a special legislative session, the Republicans have even more opportunities than they do in a regular session to use their majority power to dominate the Democratic minority. Hence, Davis’ delay that led to the special session may lead to an education bill with harsher cutbacks for school districts. But Davis managed with her high-profile showdown — and highlighting of Perry’s plans to strip from schools instead of from his pet projects — ensures that during the hot rhetoric of future political battles, perhaps even national ones, Perry will get a healthy share of blame when students’ performance at Texas schools drops as the dollars spent on educating them are drained away.
Jacob is a history junior.